Cube Handling in Matches

# Getting Gammoned? Turn the Cube Kent A. Goulding, 1982

 From Backgammon Times, Volume 2, Number 3, Summer 1982.

The checker play of today's average tournament player is remarkably strong—a good intermediate can play the checkers on a level which would have been considered expert not too long ago. The reason he is still losing to today's expert, I submit, has everything to do with the cube. As Hugh Sconyers, long one of the nation's top players, bluntly informed me a few years back: "You can't win any more with good checker play alone."

As tricky as cube decisions can be in money play, in match play they take on a whole new dimension. Someone who plays the cube brilliantly in a money game, but hasn't learned the nuances of match play, is at a tremendous disadvantage. The difference in checker play between money and match formats is negligible; the difference in cube play is monumental. For example, what would be a money beaver may well be a pass at certain match scores. Conversely, it is often correct to turn the cube in a game you are clearly losing. Because a player gets no reward for winning more than the required number of points to win the match, almost all cube decisions are distorted by the match score when it gets down to the last few points. It pays to understand those situations.

Consider the case where one player needs more than the current level of the cube to win, but not more than twice the value of the cube. In other words, if this player wins a simple game the match will continue, but if he wins a gammon (or backgammon) the match ends. In such a case, it is often correct for that player's opponent to turn the cube when he is in serious danger of getting gammoned. After all, if he loses a gammon the match will end, whether the cube is turned or not. He might as well take his "free shot" at winning those extra points in case he gets lucky and wins. This type of desperation double can be a valuable tool if properly used—and a trap for the unwary if misused. Look at the following positions and try to figure out if Black should double.
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 White (2 away) Position 1. Should Black double to 2? Black (5 away)
This is a classic case of the desperation double. Now is the ideal time to turn the cube: Black has nothing to lose and plenty to gain. If Black hits he will be a big favorite to win the game and will be delighted to have doubled; if he misses the shot he will be gammoned and lose the match, regardless of the level of the cube.
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 White (2 away) Position 2. Should Black double to 2? Black (3 away)
Although Black is almost sure to get gammoned if he misses this shot, he will be able to double after he hits and White will still accept. Doubling now would be an error. He should only consider doubling when he is threatening to reach a position so good that his opponent will regret having accepted. It may look like Black has nothing to lose, but this is wrong. It is quite possible that he could hit the shot, then lose the game but save the gammon. In that case, doubling prematurely would have cost him the match.
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 White (7 away) Position 3. Should Black redouble to 8? Black (5 away)
At first glance, this looks like the ideal time to double: if Black misses the shot he will amost surely lose a gammon and the match; while if he hits either blot he will have time to pick up the second blot and become a big favorite in the game. In this case, though, it is wrong to double. The trick lies, as usual, with the match score. White will not pass the double even if Black hits both blots. Although White's chances with two checkers closed out are too small to allow him to accept the cube in a money game or in a longer match, they are more than enough to allow him to accept here. If White passes, he loses four points and trails 0–6 in the 7-point match. His chances of winning seven points before Black wins one are quite small indeed (no more than 9 or 10%). It would be much better for him to accept the cube on eight and play this game for the match. Therefore, Black should wait until later to double. He has nothing to gain by doubling now, and it could cost him dearly.
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 White (2 away) Position 4. Should Black double to 2? Black (4 away)
This is not quite the same as the other positions because the gammon threat is not nearly as big, nor is the certainty of winning if one of the blots is hit. Nonetheless, the theme is similar. In this case, both sides are in danger of being gammoned. Whether Black is to win a gammon or lose a gammon will depend a great deal on his very next roll. Considering the match score, this is an excellent time to turn the cube. This position, by the way, comes from a match between Billy Eisenberg (Black) and Paul Magriel (White). Eisenberg turned the cube, won the game, and went on to win the match.

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